About six years ago, I developed deep, intransigent ulcers on five fingers that eventually caused irreversible damage to both hands. It was quite an odyssey, which involved two hand surgeries and 60 dives in a hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) chamber to heal. My 2017 account of the saga begins here.
I was in severe pain as my hands literally fell apart, which I was able to manage partly with medication. But I also used a meditation routine that I found on Headspace to help. The process involves focusing on sensations just beyond the locus of pain and gradually learning to isolate the specific spot that is causing such discomfort. It remains an important lesson in how pain generalizes, can be deceptive, and is exacerbated by fear and stress.
Surgery and the HBO therapy resolved both the acute and chronic pain issues, but perhaps the strangest outcome of all this was some phantom pain in my right middle finger. As part of the surgery, the top joint was amputated. But I still had sensations that hovered in the air where that fingertip used to be. It wasn’t pain, so much as a weird phantom itching. I would rub the blunted end of my middle finger, but it wouldn’t stop the itching entirely. It actually has taken all this time for that phantom discomfort to now be a very rare occurrence, as my brain has rewired to understand how my finger has permanently changed shape.
I share this because I recently listened to a fascinating podcast about pain management that explains my experience. In an interview with Ezra Klein, Dr. Rachel Zoffness, a pain psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco’s school of medicine, discusses the complex interactions between mind, body, and social cues that create the sensation of pain. She is very clear that pain is our body’s warning system of danger and physical damage, but that pain is also a function of our brain’s map of the body, and that the brain does not always truly know when danger is no longer present. This can be a significant factor, particularly, in managing chronic pain.
Pain management is a skill set for living with scleroderma, certainly, but also for life. So, here is the interview and a transcript. I hope you find it as illuminating as I did. Be well.